Mysterious group raking Bradley on campaign finance

By Laura Meckler, Associated Press, 01/31/00

WASHINGTON -- A New Jersey anti-tax group with a history of opposition to Democrat Bill Bradley is running ads that criticize him on campaign finance reform -- even as the group uses a financing provision that allows it to keep its contributors secret.

Hands Across New Jersey refuses to say who is paying for the ads, which have run for a week in New Hampshire. The group is considering running them in other states with upcoming primaries.

The law does not require that outside groups disclose contributors as long as the ads stop short of explicitly advocating a candidate's election or defeat.

"Let us be the example of why these laws should be changed," said John Sheridan, spokesman for Hands Across New Jersey. "If they don't change (the law), they will be the victims of these sorts of ads in the future, and they will feel as helpless as the public does in trying to bring about change."

Asked if it was hypocritical to advocate change while exploiting what is widely viewed as a loophole in the campaign finance law, Sheridan said: "It is hypocritical."

The ad in question shows three irate New Jersey residents sitting around a kitchen table accusing Bradley of a variety of campaign financing misdeeds, including arranging favors for special interest contributors.

The advertisement also says Bradley had to return a campaign contribution from an insurance company and attempted to intervene with the Commerce Department on behalf of a donor. The Bradley camp denied all wrongdoing, saying Bradley returned a contribution from Prudential Insurance Co. because it was raised using corporate facilities, which is illegal.

Hands Across New Jersey was begun in 1990 to protest a large tax increase pushed through the New Jersey Legislature by then-Gov. Jim Florio. Bradley nearly lost his bid for re-election that year, due partly to Florio's tax hike and the group's attacks, even though he was running against a virtual unknown -- Republican Christine Todd Whitman, now the state's governor.

But in 1996, the group split, partly over whether it should endorse then-Rep. Dick Zimmer, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli. Ousted board members charged that those who remained were tying the group too closely to Whitman and the Republican Party.

"I got tired of battling off wave after wave of Republican infiltrators," said John Budzash, the group's founder.

Budzash and Ray Babecki, one of the ousted board members, say the group's New Hampshire ads are probably backed by money from Republicans worried about facing Bradley in November.

"Wherever Bradley goes, they want to knock him, to make sure (Al) Gore wins," Budzash said.

Sheridan, who appears in the ad, said his group has 1,300 dues-paying members and a list of 90,000 potential supporters. He said he has no idea whether donors are Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians, as he is.

"I don't know who sent the money," he said. "I don't ask the membership their party affiliation."

He said contributions range from hundreds to thousands of dollars and added that he didn't know the politics of even large donors.

He said the group is targeting Bradley because it is familiar with his record, even though Vice President Gore has had well-publicized questions about his record on campaign finance.

"Bill Bradley was a senator from New Jersey," Sheridan said. "Who better to speak on his stand than his former constituents?"